It's nighttime in a forest in the western Indian state of Gujarat. By the light of his cell phone, camel herder Jat Saleh Amir, 18, pumps milk from the teats of groaning camels. The milk smells strong, like gamey butter.
Later, I join his family around a fire by grass reed huts. Everyone watches as I take my first sip of frothy camel milk from a steel bowl. I gag a little and smile apologetically – the milk is fatty, sour and salty. It's nothing like any milk I've had before. "Tell them I like it!" I elbow my local interpreter Liyakat Ali Notiyar. When nobody is looking, I slide Notiyar the warm bowl. Having grown up on camel milk, he slurps it clean in an instant.
Few Indians outside this district of Kutch and its community of camel herders drink camel milk. But that's about to change as one of India's largest dairy brands is set to mass market it. The milk will be sourced from this community of nomadic camel herders called Maldharis who roam the district of Kutch.
Maldharis have herded camels and consumed the animal's milk for centuries. They drink camel milk tea and serve it plain with breakfast, lunch and dinner. And they consider the milk a cure-all – they tell stories about camel milk curing everything from acid reflux to fever and pregnancy ailments. They also believe it can help manage diabetes. Elisha Harissa, 45, who has diabetes and lives in a nearby village regularly drinks camel milk. He claims it regulates his blood sugar. A few studies suggest there may be some scientific merit to these claims – camel milk seems to help regulate insulin secretion and blood sugar levels in patients with Type1 diabetes – suggesting it could potentially be used alongside other medical treatments to manage diabetes. However, scientists are still investigating the therapeutic potential of camel milk.
Meanwhile, Amul plans to market camel milk primarily to people with Type1 diabetes. And the company's managing director, R.S. Sodhi, is confident the product will succeed, especially given the growing number of diabetics in the country. But he acknowledges there will be challenges. The main reason: the taste. Indians may not take to the unusual taste of camel milk. Even Kutch natives used to camel milk, like Asmok Ghor, whose grandparents transported goods back and forth to Pakistan on camels, can only stomach the sour milk if it's boiled with sugar or concealed as ice cream. "I'm sorry," Ghor says. "It's not about the camels, I don't like the milk."
Sahjeevan is working with the local Kutch Camel Breeder's Association to market creative camel products, including camel milk soap and camel milk chocolate. A few years ago, they even brought a European expert to teach herders how to make camel milk cheese. Amed Taju says the chocolate was a hit among the herders, but the cheese didn't take off.
The success of Amul's efforts with camel milk may help determine the future of Maldharis. Government-imposed restrictions on grazing land in recent years, a decline in the camel-for-transport market and the mining industries' encroachment on grazing land have led to a decline in the number of camels owned by these communities. Amed Taju, a community elder, has had to sell many of his camels to get by. Now, his herd is half the size it was five years ago. Life is hard these days, says Taju. His children aren't in school and he can't afford health care. "We are poor people," he says. "We are earning and eating, not saving."
This is where Amul can help, says Sodhi. Amul will purchase the milk for at least twice its current value, encouraging Maldharis to increase their herds. It won't be huge business for Amul, Sodhi says. "But for camel herders it will be big."
If he's able to sell camel milk routinely to Amul, Taju says he will build solid homes and send his grandchildren to boarding schools. "I see a future not for my sons and daughters," he says. "But for my grandson and granddaughters."
Shaina Shealy is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Jerusalem.